June 16, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Steady Radicalization of American Politics
The rise of the so-called Islamic State highlighted the ability of violent extremist organizations to use social media as a tool to radicalize and recruit new members, and spread violent ideology with unprecedented speed and efficiency. In the aftermath of recent acts of political violence in the U.S.—and within the context of the toxic political discourse in the U.S. more generally—the online and public behavior of radical elements on both the far left and the far right highlights a disturbingly similar trend among fringe domestic political groups. Analysis of online forums frequented by such groups, as well as social and conventional media, suggests a growing and mutually reinforcing pattern of political radicalization on both sides of the political spectrum.
In the immediate aftermath of recent acts of political violence, such as the June 14 attack on a group of Republican congressmen and staffers, fringe elements on both the left and the right have leveraged a significant network of online supporters to exploit information in real time, and craft a hyperbolic narrative of violent political conflict that appeals to their supporters. Immediately after the June 14 attack, supporters scoured the attacker’s online profiles with remarkable speed and coordination, looking for any information that could be used to build a radical and politically convenient narrative around the attacker’s perceived motivation. In a variety of online forums, many far left users—who identified with the attacker’s perceived motivations—were quick to praise his actions and call for similar acts of violence against conservative politicians; far right users proffered justifications for violent reprisals against liberals. One commonly voiced area of agreement was the welcome normalization of political violence in the U.S. Attempts to legitimize the use of violence in response to such attacks are becoming increasingly common among radicals on both sides of the political spectrum. Similar sentiments were apparent in these online forums after other recent acts of political violence, in which the partisan dynamics between perpetrator and victim were reversed. Many of these sentiments are often echoed in slightly less extreme iterations by alternative media platforms, targeting consumers whose fear and anger have been heightened by the day's violence.
In the context of increasingly interdependent radicalism among the American electorate, each instance of political violence is deliberately and efficiently exploited to stoke fear and resentment among specific political constituencies. Violent acts on one end of the political spectrum reinforce radical narratives on the other. Each attack provides yet another instance of violence perpetrated on behalf of one political group against the other, perpetuating an ‘us versus them’ narrative. The net result is growing segments on both sides of the American political divide that are increasingly open to the notion espoused by radicals among them: that their political opponents are inherently violent, therefore violence against them is warranted. While attempts by fringe political groups to amplify their message through the media are nothing new, when combined with the speed and anonymity afforded by the internet, as well as a growing trend of political violence in the midst of a toxic partisan political climate, such messages can gain greater traction among an increasingly polarized electorate.
The task of ending the cycle of violence and radicalization in American politics lies first and foremost with the country’s political leadership. The tendency among politicians and pundits to project partisan politics onto acts of ideologically inspired violence—thereby portraying an entire half of the country as implicitly supportive of violence—corrodes America’s civic discourse and contributes to the radicalization of the American body politic as a whole. Should the U.S. prove unable to arrest the cycle of violence and radicalization on both ends of the political spectrum, America will likely witness more violent days of political reckoning like the shooting in Alexandria.
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